This article details the design and curation process underpinning the creation of City Symphony, an augmented reality (AR) music experience overlaying Brisbane City, Australia. This article presents the curation process of City Symphony as an autoethnographic case study of how large-scale AR placemaking projects are crafted across multiple organisations so that the process of public art creation with placemaking goals can be better understood and evaluated. Transparency of curation workflows is important because artists and organisations decide how to represent places and people, often with an explicit intention of shaping the perception of those people and places towards goals such as urban renewal, social transformation, or tourism. Stakeholder priorities impact on the orientation of these goals and associated workflows. Bain and Landau have expressed concern about artist voices potentially displacing community voices in placemaking activities (405-408). By exposing City Symphony’s planning, creation, and iterative technical development cycles for scholarly consideration, I hope to energise conversation around what is possible and ethical within the design workflow of AR experiences that represent real people and places.
Artistic Overview of Project
City Symphony uses the music and sonic storytelling techniques of video games to unpack Brisbane’s past, present, and future. To do this, the creators have worked with hundreds of local community members and artists to make a music world from Brisbane’s 65,000+ years of human society. City Symphony is accessed through an Android or iOS mobile app and responds to a listener’s location, orientation, and real-time environmental data. Music and story content is shaped by these interactions, creating unique music mixes and revealing stories, narrative journeys, and sonic games based upon how the listener moves through the environment. Brisbane is treated like an open-world game space with sound and music enticing exploration and interaction.
For example, when crossing the Brisbane River via the Goodwill Bridge, participants hear didgeridoo compositions by acclaimed artist and Ewamian / Western Yalanji man David Hudson. As participants walk the bridge, they encounter diverse voices of Brisbane locals who recorded messages, prayers, and secrets addressed to Maiwar, the local Yuggera language name for the Brisbane River. Upon exiting the bridge, participants experience a Welcome to Country from Traditional Custodians Ashley and Aaron Ruska. If participants re-enter the Goodwill Bridge later, they will encounter new messages to Maiwar and a different music configuration. Maiwar messages are collected on an ongoing basis and new contributions will be added over time. By designing a time-based, location-reactive experience, we hope to encourage repeated site visits, continued participant reflection, and ongoing community contribution on what Maiwar, Brisbane’s most significant environmental feature, means to its people. By asking contributors to address the river as Maiwar rather than its official English-language name, we are encouraging reflection on the enduring Aboriginal custodianship of the land.
City Symphony is a collaboration between Textile Audio, a studio making large-scale interactive audio experiences, and Queensland Music Festival (QMF), an organisation which uses music to enable community transformation. Brisbane is Australia's third-largest city with a diverse population. Like all international cities, it faces challenges of globalisation, sustainability, and social cohesion. City Symphony seeks to foster positive social change via empathy and engagement. Game audio techniques are used to shape people's experiences and encourage connection. An extensive series of community workshops were hosted to craft the themes, narratives, and content presented in City Symphony. By combining best practices for game audio and community music creation, City Symphony seeks to establish techniques for strategic AR interventions in communities at the scale of a city. Our artistic goal is for people to look up from their phone screens, and listen to the city, its music, its story, and its song. Ultimately, we hope that people can meet someone different from themselves and feel more connected to this place we share. City Symphony launches in June 2022 within the Curiocity Brisbane program of the World Science Festival.
Placemaking and AR
The term placemaking was popularised in the 1960s to describe urban design projects and was increasingly understood as consultative, collaborative processes involving the varied groups of people who share a space (Akbar and Edelenbos 1, 8-10; Madden 1-2, 43-52). Lennon refers to placemaking as an “expansive church” of activities ranging from direct government interventions to “bottom-up initiatives” (449). Authors like Akbar and Edelenbos position placemaking as a social, iterative process involving various actors (1-2). More applied definitions characterise placemaking as approaches and tools which put the community “front and centre of deciding how their place looks and how it functions” (Courage, What Matters 2). A popular approach has been to incorporate creative arts activities into urban design projects as a means of fostering relationships and achieving placemaking outcomes (Fleming; Courage Arts in Place; Lennon; Calderon and Takeshita). However, some authors consider arts-based placemaking as potentially displacing the placemaking narratives onto the artist who ends up speaking for rather than with a community (Bain and Landau, 406). This caution is why the curation process underpinning City Symphony is exposed for consideration in this article.
While the concept of placemaking has undergone cycles of criticism and reinvigoration (see: Aravot; Lennon), it is increasingly being deployed as part of government “smart city” urban design methodologies (Potesta 234-239) which seek to incorporate contemporary technologies, particularly information computing technology, into public space design, experience, and management (see: Albino, Berardi, and Umberto; Praharaj and Hoon Han). Government organisations deploying smart city methodologies of urban design are using AR projects as a means of fostering placemaking (see: Sanaeipoor and Emami). For the purposes of this article I am using Craig’s expansive definition of AR as something that mediates ideas between relational configurations of humans and computers (1). In practice, this is experienced as adding interactive digital information to real-world engagement (Craig, 2). Brisbane City Council, the local government organisation responsible for Brisbane, has been developing local creative AR projects as part of their urban renewal and placemaking initiatives: Smart, Connected Brisbane Framework and the Design-Led City: A Design Strategy for Brisbane. Notably, Brisbane City Council was a major funding partner for the development of City Symphony.
City Symphony’s Curation Process
The remainder of this article will detail the design and curation process underpinning City Symphony. The term curation is deployed broadly to mean the process of drawing together the perspectives on Brisbane presented within City Symphony. Curation is a kind of "gatekeeping" (Jade, 1) and, according to Storer, "a close consideration of who speaks, to whom, and for whom is fundamentally important to curatorial work" (xix). As City Symphony was created with explicit placemaking goals and presents a view of Brisbane on behalf of its community, the creative team needed to consider how the process of curation embeds explicit perspectives and relationships. Consequently, a formal curation process was developed. This process has seven steps, from thematic conceptualisation to completion for public release, detailed in fig. 1. At the time of writing, the City Symphony app is complete, stakeholders have approved launch content, and the experience is awaiting public release at the World Science Festival.
Preceding content curation were the following key steps:
- Initial conceptualisation and design.
- Reconceptualisation and contracting between organisations.
- Project pitching to festivals and organisations.
- Fundraising via grant applications, philanthropy, sponsorships and partnerships.
- Stakeholder conversations to establish locations for the work.
The initial conceptualisation and design of City Symphony occurred between Textile Audio's audio and technical directors and began with a simple question "what if we…?" After several cycles of brainstorming and technical prototypes, the City Symphony concept solidified and was formally written into a pitch document for circulation. Feedback from circulating the pitch led to further refinement and prototyping. After several cycles of this process, QMF approached Textile Audio, and a formal partnership agreement was formed, leading to a six-month fundraising process by both organisations. Importantly, consultative work and the commencement of creative content collection could not proceed until fundraising was achieved.
Fundraising impacts on project execution because funding partners specify goals and deliverables in funding agreements. Government grants supporting this project detailed key performance indicators for audience engagement and participation and directed us towards specific locations and community organisations to engage in project development. Sponsorships required branding and the use of specific software in content creation workshops. City Symphony had a significant budget to achieve its large-scale execution. Cumulatively, fundraising increases stakeholder requirements which must be negotiated and balanced during project creation phases. Obligation across funding partners is normal within the Australian arts industry, which has increasingly been moving towards a model of commingling public and private funding (Meyer; Campbell et al., 13-16). Fundraising also determines the sustainability of projects. City Symphony is intended as a multi-year project growing across Queensland in the lead-up to the 2032 Summer Olympic Games, which Brisbane will host. However, this longevity is dependent on the achievement of stakeholder KPIs upon launch, with engagement numbers, critical review, and general enthusiasm determining the continuation of the project and its maintenance. In this way, the conservation of City Symphony, like most computer-based artworks, is vulnerable, complex, and funding-dependent (see: Noordegraaf et al.; Engel and Phillips).
Overarching Curation Considerations
When explaining City Symphony to community organisations, we described its creation process as a combination of sharing meals, drinking cups of tea, having leisurely conversations, listening, music-making, and writing code. For example, to create an experience of Brisbane’s cultural diversity, QMF hosted a potluck dinner for the Welcome Dinner Project. This organisation supports new Australians by facilitating shared meals in local homes so new migrants can extend their social networks. A few weeks later, interested attendees from the Welcome Dinner visited the QMF offices for lunch and more in-depth conversations about their migration journeys. Both experiences were recorded and transformed into content for Reddacliff Place alongside recordings by musicians from the JADE New World Collective, an intercultural ensemble in residence located at the nearby Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Importantly, participants knew that Reddacliff Place, the location for their content, is outside the local government offices of the Brisbane City Council. Consequently, participants reflected on the messages they would like council workers to hear from their stories. While generalised, the description which opens this paragraph is representative of how City Symphony was crafted. However, as the Reddacliff Place example illustrates, this description lacks the detailed planning, reflection, and review processes that both Textile Audio and QMF considered ethical foundations from which to work.
The implication of City Symphony as a placemaking experience is that it is in some way representative of Brisbane, its history, its future, and the people who live and have lived here. Creators of mass public artworks and experiences have a responsibility to ensure that the representations they craft are responsive to and respectful of the environment and people being depicted and are not merely exercises in place-based rebranding (see: Eckenwiler Defining, Ethical; Richards and Duif, 141-162; Zimmerman). For City Symphony, we needed to care for the breadth and depth of Brisbane’s cultural and environmental history and its more than 65,000-year custodianship by traditional owners, the Turrbal and Jagera peoples. Care was foregrounded in the approach to community consultation and was the primary consideration for establishing a partnership between Textile Audio and QMF. At Textile Audio, we knew that we needed a greater depth of knowledge and experience to work meaningfully with local community organisations. QMF provided this expertise, having worked in the Brisbane community for over twenty years on music-oriented social transformation projects. QMF has also worked extensively with Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Therefore, this partnership brought a natural structure to project curation. QMF managed site-based research, community relationships, event planning, artist engagement, and contracting. Textile Audio oversaw artistic and technical execution of the project and its output medium as a mobile app. Overlapping responsibilities included content collection and editing, thematic focus, visual design, marketing strategy, and experience review.
Like all complex places with competing histories and stakeholders, there was no coherent or straightforward depiction of Brisbane. Given this, we decided to approach curation in a bespoke way for each location rather than seeking to overlay a holistic narrative structure or mode of engagement. As a placemaking experience, we felt content focus and structure should emerge from each site's specific environment and community, with community members positioned as experts (Madden, 43-52). This is unlike AR games like Pokémon GO which overlay generic experiences to places (see: Geroimenko). We also knew that we would need to include a representative range of community groups in our consultation and creation processes so that Brisbane’s diversity could be represented. We consulted with hundreds of local community members by visiting local organisations, then following up with bespoke workshops or events suited to the needs of the organisation’s members. Examples of community organisations who participated in consultation, workshopping, and creation processes include: With One Voice Brisbane, a mixed ability choir who rehearse inside Brisbane City Hall; the Star Gayzers, an LGBTIQ astronomy club; and the Lyceum Club Brisbane, a women’s club located in the Brisbane CBD providing lifelong learning and social activities for its members.
Another important consideration of placemaking arts activities is that they are broadly accessible to the people being represented (see: Project for Public Space, 5-8). For City Symphony, this led to the structural decision to release the app as a free download, make the app cross-platform, and support older generations of mobile phones. From a technical point of view, this had numerous implications, such as developing the app in Unity to support cross-platform rollout, shaping the size and modes of audio delivery, and fine-tuning the mobile app's hardware resource requirements.
While broad inclusion was an overarching principle informing design processes, it is important to note that large-scale structural decisions also result in exclusion. As a mobile audio experience, City Symphony is likely to exclude Deaf or hard-of-hearing people. People without mobile phones will not be able to participate. Not all community organisations we consulted with are featured in City Symphony's release content due to curation decisions and resource limitations. We do not have solutions for these exclusions at the time of writing. These exclusions are also known problems within AR experience design and remain as unsettled as the developing technology itself (see: Carter and Egliston 12-15).
The City Symphony’s project team acknowledged that inclusion and exclusion needed to be formally managed, so an iterative and cyclic process of creation founded on discussion, reflection, experience, and feedback was deployed as part of each project stage. This was informed by practice-led research methodologies, particularly Smith & Dean's “iterative cyclic web" framework (19-25). App content was shared back to artists and community members for feedback and posted on Discord servers for participants to access. Multi-stage user testing with stakeholders shaped and reshaped the content and experience for each location. Ultimately, deploying a speculative, consultative, and cyclic curation process across multiple stakeholders was resource-intensive and time-consuming. However, it was necessary for forming a consensus around the balance of representation underpinning the curation of each site and across sites. We considered rigorous prolonged evaluation and consensus formation as the most ethical way to craft an experience with explicit placemaking goals, as genuine listening takes time and presence (see: Richards and Duif, 163-214).
Site Curation Processes
To deploy practice-led project management with an iterative and cyclic structure, the development of each site and experience needed to be broken down into stages. Each stage contained processes of consultation, reflection, feedback, and revision as detailed in fig 1.
The first phase established a beginning site theme. Site themes were crafted on one or more of the following factors:
- the current and historical uses of the site;
- the cultural significance of the site over time;
- the site's landmarks and environmental features;
- the surrounding landmarks and environmental features and their impact or relationship to the site being developed;
- the potential of the site to communicate with a specific audience;
- the potential of the site to include or exclude certain kinds of people, and the factors influencing that inclusion or exclusion; and/or
- the desire to shift the perception or relationships implied by a site based upon community and stakeholder consultation.
The second curation phase was consulting with community organisations and other stakeholders. Consultation requires strong local knowledge to do adequately. For City Symphony, this knowledge was provided by QMF, who already possessed deep and broad relationships across Brisbane, and was supplemented by local and state government agencies who identified particular community groups for inclusion. Information from this consultation led to additional site research being conducted, with revision or refinement of themes occurring in the third curation phase. Revisions were shaped by hosting speculative conversations with community leaders, community members, and artists. These conversations were used to develop a content creation strategy. In some instances, conversation recordings were incorporated directly into a site experience. In other instances, conversations helped identify artists, organisations, or strategies for formal content creation which were executed in the fourth curation phase. Phases 1 to 4 took between 3 and 6 months for most sites, and in some instances were longer processes. For some sites, curation stages were revisited again after content collection and editing had occurred, or after experience user testing feedback was considered, because the initial execution didn’t achieve full consensus.
In curating an AR public art experience like City Symphony it is important to acknowledge that the factors combining to form a site theme are not neutral, and ultimately reflect the curators' perspectives (see: Diamond). Persohn considers the act of curation as a methodology (37-38). City Symphony's curation methodology embedded placemaking values such as comfort, inclusivity, diversity, sociability, and environmental connection as foundational scaffolds for how site experiences were crafted (see: Project for Public Spaces, 3).
The following example shows the influence of City Symphony’s curation methodology and its embedded placemaking values. Queens Gardens is a public square located between the Treasury Brisbane’s casino and hotel buildings. Queens Gardens has become a popular location for public protests because it contains grass and is generally cooler in Brisbane’s subtropical weather than nearby public spaces like King George Square. In 2019 it was the location of the School Strike 4 Climate, a significant protest with 30,000 attendees (Stone and Garcia). The curation team from Textile Audio and QMF discussed the site's history of protest, the local significance of the School Strike 4 Climate march, and decided to take forward a theme of protest and climate change for further investigation in phases 2, 3, and 4 (fig. 1). This led to hosting a focus group with high school students who discussed their understanding of climate change, their hopes for the future, and, where relevant, their experiences of the School Strike 4 Climate protests. Conversations revealed that Brisbane teenagers felt anxious about climate change and its impact on their lives. Students consistently expressed frustration that adults with decision-making responsibility were dismissive of young people’s concerns about climate change. The frequency of this concern within the focus group solidified the curatorial team’s desire to focus the Queens Gardens experience on young people’s concerns about climate change. The Queens Gardens location also offered an opportunity to connect young people’s voices to an adult audience. Visitors to the Treasury Brisbane are generally older and occupy positions of socio-economic privilege. The Treasury Brisbane is located a short walk from Queensland State Parliament and hosts politically significant visitors. The curation approach offered potential to represent this site's contemporary and historical importance as a protest venue, to reflect young people’s concerns about the impact of climate change on their lives in Brisbane, and to connect this expression to an audience of adults who may not have heard these concerns and could potentially act on them. The possibilities of placemaking are born from these intersections established by the site's theme.
Fig. 1: City Symphony’s Curation Workflow.
Curation phases 5 to 7 were more reflective of commercial app development processes. An important difference was that content editing and user-testing were largely open to participants and stakeholders rather than remaining confidential prior to release. Recordings have been shared back with participants and creators for feedback but also for their own use. Where artists were commissioned to produce text, music, or performances, they retained copyright to that material, providing a non-exclusive licence for its use in City Symphony. Phases 5 and 6 were led primarily by Textile Audio, who moved fluidly between experience design and content editing. Iterative testing, feedback, and refinement occurred on an ongoing basis and, for most sites, lasted between 2 and 4 months, depending upon the scale and complexity of site experiences.
Reflective Conclusion: Iterative and Cyclic Curation for Ethical Placemaking
Inside City Symphony, participants can walk through a mass choir singing a prayer to Maiwar, the Brisbane River, moving up to and through each singer's voice. They can step onto a rock concert stage next to the bass player, with the crowd's roar surrounding them. Take a seat at a pot-luck dinner and hear the clinking of cutlery and stories of food cooked by new Australians sitting across the table. Or listen to the drones and whirrs of a spaceship looking back to planet Earth from space after the impact of climate change. The final content represents the rich diversity of Brisbane and its people, with experiences reflecting First Nations, LGBTQIA, middle-Australian, intercultural, youth, elderly, environmental, historical, and speculative perspectives. The representations of Brisbane are not exhaustive, but are reflective of the people who participated in the project’s creation.
Post-release, the public response to City Symphony will determine whether the project is successful as a city-wide placemaking intervention. Pre-release, the project team considers the overall curation strategy to have directly benefited the community organisations, artists, and individuals involved in its making by providing: space for reflection on locally and personally significant experiences and histories; opportunities for artistic expression; creative training and workshopping; and paid artistic employment during the COVID-19 pandemic. These activities, as both desirable outcomes and processes within City Symphony’s making, recall Bourriaud's notion of micro-utopias, where artworks constitute a social interstice for experimenting with possibilities of creating a better world (44-45). In total, more than 700 people were engaged in City Symphony’s creation and in doing so reflected upon their own relationships to Brisbane. The project team considers this a successful placemaking intervention at an individual and organisational level. Maintaining an open-ended, iterative, and cyclic curation process was key to achieving this reach and would not have been possible utilising curation approaches with fixed themes, more time-restricted development cycles, or more commercially-oriented prototyping processes associated with app development.
An important learning from City Symphony’s development is that the relationship-building required for community placemaking needs space and reciprocity in order to be representative of a location and its people. Formally embedding iterative and cyclic consultation, development, and evaluation processes into the creation of AR placemaking projects can provide an ethical foundation for this curation. It does this by providing multiple opportunities to expose and interrogate how the artist's voice speaks for community voices and identify whose voices are excluded.
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